Dominique Swain as Lolita

Two decades ago, Jesse Walker launched into his auctorial career by beginning to write his first book, Rebels on the Air. In previous years, he had lived in the town I also resided in — Port Townsend, Washington — and we had seen many movies together. In 1997* he moved to Seattle, so we didn’t see each other all that often and didn’t have much chance to argue about the movies we saw. I remember his surprise at my favorite movie of that year, Gatacca, which now only marks the lucky 13th slot on his favorite movies list of that year:

    1. Oz
      Written by Tom Fontana
      Directed by Darnell Martin, Nick Gomez, Jean De Segonzac, Leslie Libman, Larry Williams, and Alan Taylor

      Power shifts constantly in a penitentiary’s ever-evolving social web. In a perfect climax, the whole network explodes, inverting, distorting, and dashing the prison’s hierarchies.

    2. The Apostle
      Written and directed by Robert Duvall

      A double rarity: a thoughtful movie about religion and a textured portrait of the South.

    3. The Sweet Hereafter
      Directed by Atom Egoyan
      Written by Egoyan, from a novel by Russell Banks

      Death rips a hole in a town. The viewer drifts both through the community and through time, as helpless as the grieving parents of the story.

    4. fast, cheap & out of control
      Directed by Errol Morris

      Studies in spontaneous order.

    5. Deconstructing Harry
      Written and directed by Woody Allen

      The last great Woody Allen movie is a sardonic, self-lacerating remake of Wild Strawberries.

    6. Jackie Brown
      Directed by Quentin Tarantino
      Written by Tarantino, from a novel by Elmore Leonard

      All the Tarantino trademarks are on display here: the idiosyncratic structure, the brilliantly selected soundtrack, the rich and funny dialogue. But there’s something deeper going on as well, a pulp fable about integration that refuses to preach or to give the audience a reassuring conclusion.

    7. The Ice Storm
      Directed by Ang Lee
      Written by James Schamus, from a novel by Rick Moody

      Before this movie, Christina Ricci had starred in a series of fluffy kid flicks, with only a quirky supporting role in the Addams Family films betraying more than a hint that she had something more in her. With this—released the same year as That Darn Cat!—she suddenly established herself as the indie queen of the late ’90s.

    8. Henry Fool
      Written and directed by Hal Hartley

      ‘OK, you got me outnumbered here four to one and you’re gonna kill me here tonight and not a soul in this dimly lit world is gonna notice I’m gone. But one of you, one of you, one of you is gonna have his eye torn out. Period. . . . One of you poor, underpaid jerks is gonna have an eye ripped out of its socket. I promise. It’s a small thing perhaps, all things considered, but I will succeed, because it’s the only thing I have left to do in this world. So why don’t you just take a good look at one another one last time, and think it over a few minutes more.’

    9. Sunday
      Directed by Jonathan Nossiter
      Written by Nossiter and James Lasdun, from a story by Lasdun

      ‘I guess I’m too old to play a human being.’

    10. Face/Off
      Directed by John Woo
      Written by Mike Werb and Michael Colleary

      This crazed sci-fi doppelgängerung is John Woo’s best American movie, and frankly I like it better than most of his Hong Kong output too.

    11. Grosse Pointe Blank (George Armitage)
    12. Ulee’s Gold (Victor Nuñez)
    13. Gattaca (Andrew Niccol)
    14. L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson)
    15. Public Housing (Frederick Wiseman)
    16. The Rainbow Man/John 3:16 (Sam Green)
    17. The Spanish Prisoner (David Mamet)
    18. The Eel (Shohei Imamura)
    19. Gummo (Harmony Korine)
    20. Absolute Power (Clint Eastwood)

    Now, remember, that is Jesse Walker’s list, not mine. Mine is a bit different.

    Long-form narrative fiction, either as broadcast on TV or as streamed online, in series and “mini-series” format, is different enough from one-night screened film that I usually do not include it in these “best-of” lists. Besides, I have never bothered to even give Oz a try. So my own ranking — and let us remember, these ranks are more for sport than expressions of a science — would obviously exclude Jesse’s first pick, and probably look something like this:

    1. Gattaca
      Written & directed by Andrew Niccol, starring Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Jude Law.

      Contrary to ‘the Pajama Guy,’ I do not regard this movie as exhibiting a ‘good idea poorly executed,’ but as a great idea brilliantly executed. Besides, it includes Gore Vidal in one of his best supporting performances. It is also science fiction as I like it best: about ideas and their impact on our lives, not on explosions somehow heard in space.

    2. fast, cheap & out of control
      Directed by Errol Morris

      This is a brilliantly conceived, edited, and scored documentary that explores four men with their peculiar (if entertainingly related) obsessions: animal topiary, wild animal-taming, the mole rat, and robotics. It is the latter subject that provides the title, for the roboticist imagined creating robots based on insect behavior and intelligence, not on human intelligence, and putting many robots onto the surface of an alien planet (such as Mars) and counting on redundancy. Sort of like treating information as life, and robots as sperm and not eggs. (The idea of this sort of robotic approach appears also, earlier, in Darrin Morgan’s great second contribution to The X-Files, The War of the Coprophages.) The Errol Morris film remains one of my favorite from this documentarian/visual essayist, and is probably the one that proceeds at the crispest pace: fast, very fast indeed. But not cheap. And not out of control.

    3. As Good as It Gets
      Directed by James L. Brooks, starring Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt Greg Kinnear, and Cuba Gooding Jr.

      Look, I know this is a very popular film. But unlike the biggest film of the year, the execrable Titanic, this film is a portrait not only of interesting people trying to adapt to each other and learn how to improve, to become better people, it is a romance we have not quite seen before. Nicholson plays a deeply neurotic romance writer with a decided lack of ‘people skills.’ It is obvious that this character has used being nasty to others as a way to provide emotional security for himself. But we see him change in this film, and that makes the film worthwhile — and better than most films these days. Also, the film is quite funny. If occasionally a little hard for me to take (the comedy of embarrassment not being something I tend to enjoy much — I get embarrassed for others so easily).

    4. The Sweet Hereafter
      Written & directed by Atom Egoyan (from a novel by Russell Banks)

      An extremely sad tale of people trying to deal with a great community tragedy. Lovely, well worth watching.

    5. The Ice Storm
      Written by James Schamus, from a novel by Rick Moody; directed by Ang Lee. Starring Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Henry Czerny, Christina Ricci.,

      This is not entirely dissimilar from Atom Egoyan’s movie, above. At least, in memory it seems a sad film about tragedy, guilt, and empty lives. Since I remember more scenes from it than from The Sweet Hereafter, perhaps it should be placed above it in order. But remember: these rankings are not scientific, or even expressions of urgent personal opinion. They are indicators of admiration and love. And yes, I was deeply affected by this film.

    6. Jackie Brown
      Written & directed by Quentin Tarantino (from a novel by Elmore Leonard)

      I liked this film better the second viewing than the first, and better the third time than the second. If I see it once more, it may move closer to the top of this list.

    7. Henry Fool
      Written & directed by Hal Hartley, starring Thomas Jay Ryan, James Urbaniak, Parker Posey.

      My friend Eric Dixon loves this indy auteur, Hal Hartley. I am a tad iffy on the filmmaker, being a bit uncomfortable with a certain clumsiness in too many of his films. They are not quite polished. And yet, he has something going for him in this film — as in several other works — that bowled me over the first time I saw it. I have enjoyed Henry Fool’s sequels as well.

    8. Chasing Amy
      Written & directed by Kevin Smith, starring Ben Affleck, Joey Lauren Adams, Ethan Suplee, Scott Mosier.

      This is such a step above the Clerks films that it bears marking. I know it is often denigrated as somehow . . . not respectable, and it does have Ben Affleck in a leading role, and the actor has delivered some dubious performances in his career. But the female lead is magnificent, and Jason Lee does a great job in a supporting role. The characters are quirky and original, and the milieu is refreshing. Further, the key scene to which the plot leads us is a corker. I remember my first time watching this film. As that scene approached, I saw the direction that it could go and I may have mumbled ‘surely Smith is not going there.’ But he did. He went there. All the way. And the scene is hilarious. The film seems a very realistic take on the rom-com, to me, even if that seemingly preposterous, comic, climactic Proposition is ‘unbelievable.’ I know: I go out on a limb here. I am unrepentant.

    9. The Spanish Prisoner
      Written & directed by David Mamet, starring Steve Martin, Ben Gazzara, Campbell Scott, Rebecca Pidgeon.

      A very clever take on con artistry, even better than House of Games from a decade previous.

    Now, I do not have a tenth on my list. Why? Because two of the most memorable movies of the year are messes. They are so egregious, each in its special way, that one could, with some plausibility, put them on a Worst Of the Year list.

    But any movie so expertly made as these two deserve special mention. I do not know how to place them. So I will let them stand as runners-up for the tenth-best of that year. Each is a cautionary tale, both in theme and in execution. So, let them sit here on the bottom of my list, to spark some thought:

    • Lolita
      Written by Stephen Schiff based on the great novel by Vladimir Nabokov, directed by Adrian Lyne, and starring Jeremy Irons, Dominique Swain, Melanie Griffith and Frank Langella.

      Upon reading it, I judged the novel impossible to make into a movie. And yet it has been done twice. The first time was in the early 1960s by Stanley Kubrick, and the pedophilia theme was updated: the title inamorata was played as a teenage girl by a teenager, not the girl on the cusp at all . . . and an attractive one at that. It’s a good movie, maybe the best role for James Mason. Further, it gets at a crucial element of the book: it is a dark comedy. And yet the Kubrick effort is far enough away from the book that it seems almost further from the classic novel than that novel is from its precursors, the posthumously published The Enchanter (1986) and the identically titled short story from the early 20th century written by another author entirely. The 1997 movie premiered in Europe and then debuted in America in late 1998 — and the lag is understandable. It goes a different direction. In some ways it is much closer to the novel. The actress who plays Lolita, for example, seems less the teenybopper and more the “nymphet” — though Dominique Swain was about the same age as Miss Sue Lyon when the 1962 work was shot. The whole affair is much more . . . well, it was rated R in part for “aberrant sexual behavior.” The main sex scene between Humbert Humbert (played brilliantly by Jeremy Irons) and Lolita is unforgettable — so see it at your own risk. It is especially disturbing because most of the dark comedy is gone. It is merely dark. Indeed, it seems to play as a twisted romance of sorts. A tragedy, maybe. Which I understand the novel was, in a sense, but . . . the movie seems somehow very wrong, and less moral than the book. Oh, and we “get” to see Frank Langella in full-frontal nudity. Alrighty then. I have never read the unused Nabokov screenplay for the work, but I know how I would write the screenplay, and how to cinematically frame the first half as separate from the second half, which was a crucial structural element in the novel that is missing in both movies. But this 1997 work is brilliantly shot, acted, and . . . yes, unforgettable.

    • Boogie Nights
      Written & directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, starring Mark Wahlberg, Julianne Moore, Burt Reynolds.

      This movie stars Marky Mark in his first screen role as Dirk Diggler, a well-endowed lad who makes it big in the porn biz as it turned from a film industry into a video industry. It is funny in the first half and then goes dark in the second. It thus has a structure that the Lolita films should have had. But it becomes unduly chaotic as it grinds home the apparent message, and more than a bit hard to watch. Indeed, my “review” of Boogie Nights, delivered to my friends at the time, was short and sweet: like Dirk Diggler’s dick, it is way too long.


    * Or maybe in late 1996, I cannot remember. He had worked with me under the presiding mad genius of R.W. Bradford, at Liberty magazine. But my copies of the first few issues of 1997 seem to be missing, so I cannot check the even the season of his exit from Liberty’s masthead.